Don’t overdo it and avoid slipping into auto-pilot mode, writes the cellist

drex vib

Davina Shum, in a rare sighting away from the theatre pit or at The Strad office

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Readers of The Strad may know that I am a cellist working in musical theatre, often performing show runs of a month, three months or even six months. Needless to say, performing the same show every evening warrants plenty of time to think about one’s technique, whether that be during tacet dialogue scenes, or in an attempt to keep the same musical material fresh and spontaneous.

Amid eight shows last week, I’ve been thinking about my vibrato. Here are three reminders for myself, that you might find useful too.

Don’t press too hard

It’s common for string players to execute an ‘intense’ vibrato by pressing into the string with their left fingertips so hard, wearing deep groove indentations in their finger callouses like badges of honour. There’s a time and a place for that, but it’s important to remember that you need to give space for the string to vibrate. By easing off the pressure in your left fingertips, you have access to a wider range of colours that you can vary with your vibrato, as well as eliminating tension in your left arm.

The string nees to vibrate under your fingertips, which will allow for a more open sound. Pressing super hard will just ‘squash’ and dampen the string, resulting in - admittedly – a very focused vibrato, but one that sounds and feels tense. Try it – press hard with your left second finger, then see how loosely and widely you can vibrate. Apply less pressure – now it’s easier, right?


Use your vibrato to illustrate direction of phrase

My wonderful teachers used to tell me ‘a note is always travelling – it’s either travelling to somewhere or coming away from somewhere. In other words, a note has to have direction. It’s the same if you’re speaking, you may lead towards important notes, or hastilyskipthroughpartsofasentence, or trail off completely as your sentence comes to an end…

You can use vibrato in conjunction with plenty of other string techniques (such as bow pressure, point of contact, speed) to illustrate which way a note is going. Imagine you’re driving - you’ve got to factor in so many external and environmental factors that you can’t just drive at the same speed! Apply that to vibrato - avoid going on auto pilot and think about the intention of how you vibrate (though the death toll is likely to be lower if you do go on auto pilot, compared with driving).

 Sometimes, less is more

…and that no vibrato is just what you need. For example, you might make more of a statement with a note that has a stark, focused sound, with no variation in the pitch. Or maybe paired with a lighter touch in the bow arm, you can create an ethereal, pure sound, on which other musicians can add layers. The uses of no vibrato are numerous, but what you want to avoid is vibrating constantly, resulting in a note with pitch so nebulous, that no listener, fellow musican nor yourself can focus on your intention!

Playing without vibrato will help your intonation as well. If you can play in tune without vibrato - with a solid, firm understanding of your left-hand frame with good phrasing - then your playing will shine once you add vibrato back into the mix. The analogy I like to use is that vibrato is like ketchup - you shouldn’t put it over everything. We shouldn’t be hiding behind vibrato. Vibrato needs to enhance our musical intentions.

If you have a particular musical technique or concept on which you’d like to hear or read my thoughts, let me know! Comment below or send an email to

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